SOUND OFF SPECIAL EDITION: Salute to Frank Loesser
Today, in honor of centennial of Frank Loesser, we are taking an exclusive First Listen to the Masterworks Broadway release of HEART & SOUL: Celebrating The Unforgettable Songs Of Frank Loesser and taking a look at some memorable clips and cast albums and soundtracks from his illustrious career in Hollywood and on Broadway. Though in the sweaty summer haze it's hard to warm too much to "Baby, It's Cold Outside", nothing could be hotter than "Havana" from GUYS & DOLLS and the more we look at Loesser, it becomes quite crystal clear that sometimes less is truly much, much more…
Having written "Heart and Soul", it hardly comes as much of a surprise that Frank Loesser essentially epitomized exactly that in the songs and scores that he composed for Hollywood and Broadway. GUYS & DOLLS is - without question - one of the finest scores of the Golden Age and few, if any, score has ever equaled the crossover success in radio play and the sheer number of American Songbook standards. How many scores in Broadway history can boast as many memorable melodies:
"Fugue For Tinhorns", "A Bushel and A Peck", "Luck Be A Lady", "Sue Me", "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat", "Adelaide's Lament" - and more. THE MOST HAPPY FELLA was one of the first truly operatic musicals on Broadway and the massive artistic achievement of that score is still quite awe-inspiring more than fifty years later, though the score is much more astonishing when taken as a whole than just in snippets like the chop suey style enjoyment of GUYS & DOLLS. Then there's the Pulitzer-prize winning HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING which manages to still be nearly as hip and entertaining today as it was almost fifty years ago, as yet another credit to the timeless quality of Loesser's masterful music and lyrics. The other shows and scores - and songs, what songs, over seven hundred of them - contain just as many, if not more, pleasures and palaces (to crib a phrase - or, more to the point, title - from a more esoteric flop) of enchantment: WHERE'S CHARLEY?, GREENWILLOW, and some others, many of them now-forgotten films. Looking back, it is plain to see why the hits were hits, but the lesser known shows or outright obscurities contain so many charms as to astound and dismay in that they are just as good - if not better - than the big smash hits. Could one man have been capable of such breadth and scope in not only each individual score but in the entire scheme of his career? Just taking a cursory overview of Loesser's career is to touch upon the very foundation of the showbiz style and vernacular of stage and screen, particularly of that golden time gone by but also totally apropos to today. The fact that Loesser's music was recorded by virtually every single standout star of the sound era is a further testament to his talent, timelessness and the legacy his words and music will leave - and have left - on the world. Yes, it would be perfectly justified to argue that Loesser's music is the very heart and soul of the Golden Age of Broadway itself and the score to GUYS & DOLLS - along with Styne/Sondheim's GYPSY and Bernstein/Sondheim's WEST SIDE STORY - perhaps the greatest (read: most innovative, entertaining, accomplished, polished, stylish) theatre music of the twentieth century. Loesser is no less than that - the very best - but we can gain so much more by taking some lessons in Loesser - less so lesson, more so merriment.
Frank, Frank, Frank
HEART & SOUL: Celebrating The Unforgettable Songs Of Frank Loesser
This instantly collectable and relatively comprehensive collection of Loesser songs - mostly the famous ones, but also a few welcome obscurities and esoterica - is an excellent crash-course in Loesser revealing the three faces of Frank - fearless, fragile and, well, frank. For sure, the producers have certainly culled from the crème de la crème with these absolutely sensational performers, each of whom is certainly the cream at the top of the cream of the crop. These four simply beyond-compare ladies must be mentioned right off the bat: Pearl Bailey, Della Reese, Sarah Vaughn and Doris Day. Throw in Vic Damone, Johnny Mathis and Barry Manilow - among many others - and you have a combustible combination of epic greatest hit album proportions as far as the great American songbook goes. All of these performers I've named are so very different, but all supremely gifted and talented artists all the same proving themselves ideal interpreters of the jazzy mini-masterpieces that came from the pen of Loesser throughout his lengthy career. This collection gives us just a taste of Loesser's output, but in each bite presented we may savor the adept artistry and unsurpassed ingenuity of his compositional output. Plus, his songs are just plain fun and entertaining. All of that at once? Indeed, indeed. Indeed, seems there are three sides to Frank Loesser: the caustic; the sentimental; and the showman. Sarcasm, sentiment and showbiz razzmatazz all get equal time to shine on this exemplery example of how to do a greatest hits album totally right while preserving the through-line of the central figure's career trajectory. Whatever face we face of Frank's is a surefire score.
Case in point: the Academy-award winning standard - and my personal favorite Christmas tune - from the film NEPTUNE'S DAUGHTER, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" performed with jovial, jazzy jubilance by Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Page. It has never sounded better than it does here in this vintage recording - aside: though I do also love Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming's take, too, on the Broadway Cares HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS benefit album, but that is the only exception to this rule as far as this album is concerned - and even the most antique of these tunes sounds as crisp and fresh as it possibly can (though there is the occasional and expected hiss or crack due to the vintage of these fine wines of compositions) and this is no exception. From the film THANKS FOR THE MEMORY, Della Reese takes on a dirge-y ditty titled "Two Sleepy People" (music by Hoagy Carmichael) that expertly illustrates that late-late-night/early-early-morning time of night/day. Loesser - as always - says it better in music and lyrics than practically anyone else could in any other way. Recording legend Doris Day delights with both of her selections, the first being the GUYS & DOLLS ballad "I've Never Been In Love Before" which Day makes the song sound quite unlike it has ever sounded before in many marvelous ways and her smooth and sensitive delivery surely does the song - and the composer/lyricist - proud. Ms. Day also sings the somewhat similarly styled dramatic showpiece from THE MOST HAPPY FELLA with her compelling stylization of "Somebody, Somewhere". Continuing on the theme of beyond reproach recording artists singing simply stupendous songs: possibly the greatest female jazz vocalist of the second half of the twentieth century, Sarah Vaughn, is positively resplendent and ravishing on both of her songs on this album: the classic "Can't Get Out of This Mood" from the film SEVEN DAYS LEAVE and the eerie, lilting "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year" from the film CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. In a sort of ironic way, few songs can make one sense the onset of the encroaching Summer season much more than the latter song - which comes from a Christmas movie, of all things. But, then again, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is probably the hottest jazz to be found in any Christmas song. Such is the more to be found in the larger Loesser - and even in the lesser Loesser (like WHERE'S CHARLEY and HANS CHRISTEN ANDERSON). So much more.
As if these twenty selections collected in one place were not enough to entice you to purchase this through ArkivMusic - and I surely urge you to do so - it should also be noted that this album has two exciting and expansive musical medleys from one of Loesser's strongest scores and one of his most epic efforts: the stage-musical-come-film-musical WHERE'S CHARLEY and film-musical HANS CHRISTEN ANDERSON, with lively and attractive renderings by The Four Lads with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra as well as the Boston Pops Orchestra with Arthur Fiedler conducting, respectively. The Four Lads also take on the warhorse "Standing On the Corner" from THE MOST HAPPY FELLA in its most memorable - and highest-charting - iteration. Perhaps in the future these most obscure scores will get a bit more respect - like that afforded to GUYS & DOLLS and HOW TO SUCCEED, and, in many circles, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA - than they get now for they have so many interesting and delightful songs in them and so much to enjoy, digest and contemplate. And love.
"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" is a somewhat curious - but fun - addition and shows the breadth and scope of the content this collection aspires to cover with Helen Forrest and Harry James with His Orchestra striking with a hot iron on this historically notable tune. Johnny Mathis is scorching and somnolently sensual on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and his "Joey, Joey, Joey" is something of a standard due in large part to his inimitable delivery of it, and it is quite clear to see why. Another big bang balladeer is on the bill - with an exceptionally wonderful big band behind her - Bea Wain with Larry Clinton and His Orchestra on "Heart and Soul". This song is one of Loesser's best known - and most played, perhaps everyone's first song at the piano, even those who don't play, to this very day - and this is one of the best recordings it has ever received with a glowing luster all its own thanks to Ms. Wain. "Let's Get Lost" equally evokes a bygone era with its romantic charms, with Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra - particularly the feisty asides from the ladies of the chorus - painting a picture of a magical, mystical nightclub such as only exists in the memory and in the mind. Plus, in the music and lyrics of songs like this thanks to Loesser's erudite wit and style. Truly, these songs are the pure, crystalline evocation of elegance in every sonic way.
Speaking of the classiest class acts ever to grace a stage (Broadway or soundstage): Dinah Shore and Michele Lee. Shore scores with "I Wish I Didn't Love You Do" from the film THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Michele Lee - so very memorable and spot-on in the film version of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING - seduces and destroys (in a good way) "I Believe In You". Perhaps that song more than any other in this collection best showcases Loesser's stylistic precision and innovation, sometimes being sheer invention and genius. The song shouldn't work, really, all those musical concepts at once, yet it works like absolute gangbusters. Loesser was far ahead of his time and it is quite astounding to dissect some of his best songs - like this one - and see all the storytelling techniques he was using not only in the dense and complex lyrics, but also the quite brilliantly stylized, jazz-inflected and pop-infected music. "I Don't Want To Walk Without You" from the film SWEATER GIRL is a truly vintage selection and provides a nice bookend to the similarly scratchily attractive "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" with a lovely performance by Helen Forrest with Harry James and His Orchestra. Final mentions goes to two crooners at the top of the field: Vic Damone and Barry Manilow. Damone, yet another legend in a cast to make one starstruck, contributes a restrained and refined "Never Will I Marry" from GREENWILLOW and Manilow offers a bombastic blast of "Luck Be A Lady" from GUYS & DOLLS. Never will a Loesser collection contain quite as many marvelous master-works in one place than this careful, considerate and compulsively addicting album from Sony Masterworks Broadway. It is truly something to cherish, especially on this momentous centennial day. More I cannot have wished for than this, nor to share my enthusiasm for this album with you!
A tip of the hat - and this one's for you, Frank!
For further Frank Loesser celebration please be sure to check out the clip below, the tease for TCM's salute to Frank Loesser with showings of many of his films and the excellent documentary about his life and career, HEART & SOUL which premieres at 10 PM EST. Don't miss it!